Tuesday 12 December 2017

Earls and Fitzgerald hard-wired for success

Leinster players and former students Luke Fitzgerald, Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll, return to Blackrock College as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the school
Leinster players and former students Luke Fitzgerald, Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll, return to Blackrock College as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the school

Eddie O'Sullivan

Duo's spectacular careers launched on wet and windy days after class in the depths of winter

When Ireland tumbled out of the 1999 Rugby World Cup in Lens just before the beginning of the new millennium, Irish rugby was on its knees. Had anybody dared to stand up at that point and predicted we were about to enter THE golden era of Irish rugby, they would have been laughed out of the country.

But that's exactly what happened. After winning one Grand Slam, four Triple Crowns, three Heineken Cups, five Magners League titles and numerous wins against South Africa and Australia, Ireland is regarded as a powerhouse of international rugby worldwide.

But it didn't happen overnight. When professionalism was at an embryonic stage in the mid-1990s, the IRFU made some inspired decisions to lead us down the path we are now on, making us the envy of every rugby nation in the northern hemisphere.

It also took a little time for the results to emerge, but when they did, it happened very quickly. It's worth remembering that at the end of the 1999 Rugby World Cup two of the latest stars of Irish rugby, Luke Fitzgerald and Keith Earls, were still in primary school.

In fact, Ireland's first piece of silverware of the decade didn't arrive until 2004 when we won our first Triple Crown for 19 years. Back then, Fitzgerald and Earls were only breaking into their respective SCT at school. Five short years later they were both heading to South Africa on the 2009 Lions Tour with 12 other Irish players.

They have certainly travelled a long way in a very short time. On that basis it is not difficult to argue that the skills they have developed, which now makes them the world-class players they have become, were hard-wired during those formative years playing schools rugby.

I'm pretty sure back in 2004, their coaches in Blackrock College and St Munchins College had an inkling that Luke and Keith were destined for great things. But not many other people had an idea what was in the pipeline. And that is what epitomises schools rugby in Ireland.

It is on those cold, wet and windy afternoons in the depths of October and November that spectacular rugby careers are launched. Thousands of schoolboys and hundreds of coaches quietly go about their business, working on skill development after a day's work in the classroom, day in and day out.

Of course, around this time of year rugby supporters begin to look at the schools cup competitions in their provinces. But it's worth remembering that the hard yards for all these schools are behind them now and they started travelling those hard yards way back last September.

Having said that, the schools cup competition in each province creates its own unique concoction of nervousness and excitement. Walk through the corridors of any rugby school during lunch break on the day of a cup game and the atmosphere of trepidation and expectation is contagious.

The school usually resembles a beehive in early summer. There are banners being assembled, faces being painted and school chants being rehearsed extolling the extraordinary skills and virtues of the stars on the team. It is a unique atmosphere that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated and for the pupils it is definitely NOT an ordinary day in the salt mines.

No doubt the usual powerhouses of the game in each province will be tipped to win 'The Cup' this year. History is in their favour. That history was hard earned over the years through commitment, hard work and yes ... financial investment that the IRFU are ever grateful for.

It is also important to mention the schools that are rarely tipped to land the silverware. They too have hard-earned traditions, even if their strike rate in the competitions doesn't rank them up with the household names of the schools game.

But occasionally one of these schools does reach the Holy Grail and win a schools cup. It was 1970 when Newbridge College last won the Leinster Schools Senior Cup. The famous Lansdowne out-half Mick Quinn emerged as the hero of that team and went on to win 10 caps for Ireland.

It is true that the bigger schools do produce more international players. A quick look at any Irish match programme will reveal that the educational establishments of Blackrock, Terenure, Presentation, Christians, Royal Belfast and Methody are usually well represented.

But as recently as 2008 in the Six Nations Championship against Scotland, Geordan Murphy, Bernard Jackman, Jamie Heaslip and Tony Buckley were all on the field at the same time. All four of those players began their rugby careers in the same establishment as did Quinn, Newbridge College. That is an extraordinary achievement by the small rugby school in Co Kildare.

Also, the 2009 Lions captain Paul O'Connell played his schools rugby at Ard Scoil Ris in Limerick. Ard Scoil has always had a great rugby tradition but would not usually be spoken of in the same company as Munchins, Pres or Christians in Munster.

So, across the board, high-profile or low-profile, big or small, the schools have all contributed handsomely to Irish rugby throughout its history.

As the excitement of the schools competitions begins to build over the next few weeks, there is no doubt that the next Luke Fitzgerald or Keith Earls is out there somewhere. I'm sure their schools coaches have a pretty good idea who they are, even if we don't.

For that reason alone it is always worth attending schools rugby at every opportunity. Apart from the tension and excitement that are imbued in the schools game, you could unknowingly be looking at the next Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara or Paul O'Connell.

Perhaps we are again heading into another golden era of Irish rugby and the stars that will take us there are only just beginning to feel the butterflies in their tummies as they think about the upcoming first round of this year's schools cups.

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